Awesome foursome

The jubilant Indian women with bronze medals.-SANDEEP SAXENA

If Saina and Sindhu performed well, no praise is less for the way Jwala and Ashwini combined to give their best against tougher rivals. By Rakesh Rao.

In the past four years, women badminton players have brought laurels to the country. Saina Nehwal, P. V. Sindhu and the crack doubles combination of G. Jwala and Ashwini Ponnappa have given India the much-needed identity and a place among the elite nations.

For long, the success story of Indian badminton was associated with the unprecedented achievements of Prakash Padukone and the lone All-England triumph of P. Gopi Chand. Now, there is not much to talk about our men when compared to the feats of our women players. No wonder, when the prestigious Thomas Cup and Uber Cup Finals were hosted by India, only our women’s team was expected to win a medal.

In a format where each tie has five matches — three singles and two doubles — India went in with optimism in two singles and a doubles.

For a nation, that had failed to produce true world-beaters in women’s badminton until 2006, the event was a huge opportunity to showcase India’s worth at the global stage.

With Saina and Sindhu among the world’s elite, having won bronze medals in Olympics and World Championship respectively, India had hoped to make initial headway. With the experienced doubles combination of Jwala-Ashwini looking hungry to make up for the lost time, India was hopeful of claiming the decisive third ‘rubber’ in these best of five match format.

The anticipated, dismal performance of Indian men — losing to Malaysia and Korea in the league — was soon pushed into the background as the women’s team produced a series of consistent performances.

Clubbed with Thailand (headed by World champion Ratchanok Intanon), Hong Kong and Canada, the host gained in confidence by winning every tie.

Saina ended her lean trot to beat Intanon, the Thai girl, who has struggled with fitness and form since winning the World title in August last year.

Saina had not beaten a higher-ranked player since the conquest of World No. 2 German Juliane Schenk in the BWF Superseries Finals in December 2012. Therefore, the 22-20, 21-14 triumph over Intanon was more than just another victory.

Like Saina, Sindhu too won all her five singles. Creditably, the 18-year-old has beaten all three leading Chinese girls — World No. 1 and Olympic champion Li Xuerui, former World champion and World No, 1 Wang Yihan and the reigning Asian Games and All England champion Wang Shixian.

Among Sindhu’s victories, the ones against Indonesia and Japan stood out. The youngster fought match-points in both these matches.

Sindhu bounced back to stop Indonesia’s Bellaetrix Manuputty 21-16, 10-21, 25-23 and returned the following day to overpower Japan’s Sayaka Takahashi 19-21, 21-18, 26-24. In recent times, Sindhu had lost a few three-game encounters. Therefore, these victories should boost Sindhu’s self-belief.

If Saina and Sindhu performed well, no praise is less for the way Jwala and Ashwini combined to give their best against tougher rivals.

Unlike Saina and Sindhu, whose professional needs are taken care of by the Gopi Chand Academy, life is much tougher for Jwala and Ashwini.

Jwala trains under Mohammad Arif in Hyderabad and Ashwini with Tom John in Bangalore. They had to fend for themselves when they had travel to each others’ city for joint training.

Perhaps, these challenges and the adverse times they had faced together in the days leading to the Indian Badminton League (IBL) auction last year, have toughened them. Jwala even fought a legal battle and won a favourable verdict from Delhi High Court against the Badminton Association of India (BAI). So over all, the coming together of these two doubles specialists, who won the National title in December, has helped the country more.

“I think, Ashwini and I are playing better and enjoying our game more than we did before the 2012 Olympics. We will surely improve ahead of the Commonwealth Games, followed by the Asian Games this year,” assures Jwala.

It was against Japan, in the semifinals, that the World No. 36 doubles pair lost its only match to World No. 4 Misaki Matsutomo and Ayaka Takahashi 12-21, 22-20, 21-16. Indeed, it was a gallant performance.

But this loss, after Saina and Sindhu had put India 2-0 up, proved costly. Japan easily won the third singles and the second doubles, where coach Gopi Chand experimented with Saina-Sindhu combination instead of the off-form pair of Pradnya Gadre and Sikki Reddy.

Overall, barring these four players, there is no bench-strength even in women’s badminton as well. India went in with just one plan and lasted as long it worked. All credit to Saina, Sindhu, Jwala and Ashwini for taking India to a historic medal. Will this prove as a catalyst for future medals in team events? Only time will tell.